How Much Does Running Cadence Actually Matter?
One of the most common questions asked in the realm of running coaching pertains to cadence—a topic frequently associated with the idea of an optimal running cadence of 180 steps per minute. But is there truly an ideal running cadence, and should you make efforts to improve yours?
Is There A Perfect Running Cadence?
The concept of an ideal cadence gained prominence through a study conducted by Jack Daniels in 1984. Daniels observed the number of steps elite athletes took during a track race and found that these runners averaged at least 180 steps per minute.
However, it’s essential to consider this study within its specific context. Several crucial variables must be taken into account. The race in question was a 3K race, which represents a very high-intensity effort. Additionally, the study focused on elite runners, who possess exceptional talent and genetic advantages compared to recreational runners. Even among elite runners, only a few outliers deviated significantly from the 180 steps per minute cadence.
It’s important to understand that as running speed increases, so does cadence. A 3K race, covering a distance of 1.83 miles, demands an exceptionally high level of effort, resulting in higher cadences than those observed during easy runs, marathons, or even tempo runs. Running speed is influenced by two factors: stride frequency (cadence) and stride length. As you run faster, your cadence naturally increases, and vice versa.
Furthermore, it’s crucial to acknowledge that not every runner in the elite group maintained a cadence of exactly 180 steps per minute. Natural variations existed within the dataset, with some runners exceeding 180 while others fell slightly below this mark.
Nevertheless, this observed data somehow transformed from an observation into an ideal. Recreational runners often hold the belief that their cadence should always be 180, irrespective of the run’s intensity or individual factors such as height. Both novices and experienced runners have propagated the notion that achieving the magical 180 steps per minute is a guaranteed method to reduce the risk of injury. However, the topic of running cadence is more nuanced than the simplistic directive to “maintain a cadence of 180 steps per minute.”
A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2018 delved into the stride frequencies of elite runners participating in the 2016 100-km World Championship. While the average cadence hovered around the often-ideal rate of 182 steps per minute, individual runners exhibited a range of cadences, spanning from 155 to 203 steps per minute. Remarkably, this means that some elite runners maintained cadences significantly lower than the perceived “ideal,” even at the highest level of competition.
Furthermore, the study discovered that these runners adjusted their stride frequency as they accelerated during the race. As expected, their cadences quickened with increased speed. The intensity of the race directly influenced their stride rates, reinforcing the understanding that runners should not anticipate a uniform cadence across different running velocities. It’s worth noting that these athletes were engaged in a road race, which generally offers more control over cadence compared to trail racing.
Can Enhancing Cadence Improve Performance?
What transpires when a runner focuses on elevating their cadence? A 2019 study featured in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated precisely that question, yielding intriguing results.
In this study, 22 female runners, each possessing over five years of running experience, dedicated 15 minutes per day to cadence improvement. Over the course of ten days, these athletes engaged in gait retraining to elevate their cadence from below 176 steps per minute to reach 180 steps per minute. Various metrics, including heart rate and oxygen consumption rate, were measured before and after the intervention at different running velocities.
The results of this research indicated that cadence training led to an enhancement in running economy. The intervention group increased their step frequency by 8.2% at 7.6 mph and 5.7% at 8.5 mph. With this cadence increase, their heart rates and oxygen consumption rates decreased, signifying increased running economy. These differences were statistically significant, with oxygen consumption rates showing a 14.1% and 8.7% reduction and heart rates displaying a 4.8% and 5.4% decrease at 7.6 and 8.5 mph, respectively, compared to pre-intervention measurements and the control group.
Running economy is influenced by multiple factors, as elaborated in a comprehensive article on the topic. Nonetheless, considering that runners often invest in expensive high-tech shoes to achieve marginal improvements in running economy, it becomes evident that increasing running cadence offers a generally safe and cost-effective means to enhance running economy. Moreover, it’s not imperative to achieve an exact cadence of 180 steps per minute; even modest increases, such as progressing from 165 to 172 steps per minute, can yield benefits. The key lies in focusing on a cadence that aligns with your body’s comfort and efficiency.
Can Altering Your Running Cadence Mitigate Injury Risk?
Biomechanical diversity is prevalent among runners, and while some individuals may exhibit unorthodox form without incurring overuse injuries, for others, their self-selected running style can contribute to the risk of injury. The role of running cadence in injury prevention remains a topic of mixed evidence and discussion.
A retrospective case-control analysis conducted in 2021 and published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, which involved 550 injured runners (approximately 49% of whom were female), concluded that there was no discernible correlation between cadence and the occurrence of injuries. Likewise, a 2018 study in the same journal found no association between an individual’s natural cadence and injury risk, as assessed by vertical load rates, in both injured and uninjured runners.
Conversely, a study from 2018 featured in the International Journal of Sports and Physical Therapy examined the effects of alterations in vertical oscillation rates and cadence in twenty uninjured runners. The findings revealed that an increase in running cadence resulted in decreased loading rates and braking impulse, both of which are potential risk factors for injury. Similarly, a systematic review conducted in 2014 and published in Sports Medicine analyzed ten studies and reported that an augmented cadence reduced the magnitude of biomechanical irregularities that could elevate injury risk. Additionally, a review from 2021 in Current Osteoporosis Reports suggested that increasing running cadence holds significant promise in clinical terms for reducing the risk of bone-stress injuries.
Nevertheless, it’s crucial to acknowledge that running-related injuries are multifactorial in nature. Elements such as nutritional status, running form, training load, training progression, sleep quality, and even certain chronic illnesses that may impact nutrient absorption can collectively influence an individual’s susceptibility to injury. For some runners, increasing cadence may serve as a means to reduce this risk; however, it’s important to emphasize that augmenting cadence does not provide absolute immunity against injury.
How To Enhance Your Running Cadence
The 2019 study mentioned earlier employed a brief but effective intervention in which runners utilized metronome phone apps during treadmill sessions—just 15 minutes, not the entirety of their run. This approach aligns with the recommendations of many physical therapists. When aiming to increase cadence, the goal is to make incremental adjustments, typically around 5%. For instance, if your current cadence stands at 160 steps per minute, a 5% increase would equate to 168 steps per minute.
Gait training is a process that demands patience, and the pursuit of an elevated cadence is no exception. It involves training your brain and muscles to establish improved communication, resulting in a higher step count per minute. This, in turn, reduces the time your feet spend on the ground and necessitates a running form conducive to maintaining a high cadence—avoiding overstriding and embracing a more pronounced forward lean.
It’s advisable to commence with modest interventions rather than attempting an entire 60-minute run at an increased cadence right away. You can initiate the process with 10-15 minutes and gradually progress to longer durations, such as 20 minutes, until you feel at ease running an entire session with a heightened cadence.
Various methods can aid in cadence enhancement:
1. Metronome Usage: Allocate 10-15 minutes during each run for metronome guidance.
2. Regular Strides: Incorporate strides into your routine with a focus on executing quick steps.
3. Cueing: Implement cues that emphasize “light” and “swift” steps as you run.
4. Playlist Selection: Curate a playlist featuring songs with beats per minute that closely align with your desired cadence goal.
By gradually integrating these strategies, you can work towards achieving a more efficient and beneficial running cadence.
Final Words – How Much Does Running Cadence Actually Matter?
The belief that 180 steps per minute represents the ideal cadence is not universally applicable. Cadence is just one component of overall running form. While boosting cadence may offer advantages to certain runners, it may not warrant the extra exertion for others, especially if they already maintain a solid training regimen. It’s crucial to bear in mind that your cadence naturally fluctuates with your running pace—easy runs typically involve a slower cadence compared to tempo runs or interval workouts.